The Last Picture Show

by Larry McMurtry

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Late at night, Lonnie Bannon of Horseman, Pass By would sit on top of his windmill and gaze off at the lights of Thalia, the small town that McMurtry describes in his third book, The Last Picture Show. There are more people in Thalia than on Lonnie’s ranch, but they are equally lonely. People in Thalia in the early 1950’s are caught between the dying countryside and the frightening pull of such booming cities as Dallas and Houston. Many people in Thalia had moved in from surrounding ranches (as the McMurtrys had moved to Archer City). Feeling under siege by the strange ways of the steadily encroaching urban United States, they impose their old ways on the town and try to crush any signs of nonconformity.

The story focuses on Sonny Crawford and his friend Duane Moore. It opens as the boys finish their last high school football game and continues over the following year as they search for a new path for themselves. Sam the Lion, once a rancher, now owns the town’s movie theater, pool hall, and café. He acts as a father-surrogate for Sonny and Duane, and for other boys in need, including Billy, the mentally retarded boy that Sam took in and reared. Billy sweeps out Sam’s businesses. If someone does not stop him, he sweeps to the edge of town and on into the empty countryside, as mindlessly occupied as the rest of the townspeople are as they go about their lives.

Duane dates the town beauty, Jacy Farrow, the daughter of oil-rich Lois and Gene Farrow. Jacy is a narcissistic, selfish young woman whose sense of self depends on the admiration and envy of others. She dates Duane only because he is a handsome high school athlete.

The story focuses mainly on Sonny, an innocent young man much like Lonnie Bannon. During this year, Sonny is initiated into manhood through a sexual relationship with Ruth Popper and through the death of Sam the Lion. Ruth Popper is an attractive woman who has had nearly all the life drained from her when she and Sonny begin an affair. She is the wife of football coach Herman Popper. Herman values a good shotgun more than he does a woman; Ruth tells Sonny, “The reason I’m so crazy is because nobody cares anything about me.” Her affair with Sonny makes her see that she is not crazy and that she is an attractive woman.

Lois Farrow, Jacy’s mother, is another strong woman who defies the mores of Thalia. The beautiful, rich Lois realizes a hard truth that many oil-rich Texans confront: Having money does not fill life’s emptiness. She fights off crushing boredom by drinking, having sex, and spending money. She also enjoys frightening men who cannot cope with assertive women. Both Ruth and Lois are examples of McMurtry characters whose capacities do not fit their situations.

Sonny matures enough to refuse to join the boys in their sexual escapades with heifers but not so much that the future becomes clearer to him. Nor does he mature enough to resist Jacy when she seduces him away from Ruth Popper. Duane, who had been away working in the oil fields, returns, fights with Sonny, and blinds him in one eye. Duane leaves for the Army. Jacy elopes with Sonny in order to be the center of attention. She knows that the Farrows will annul the marriage, which they do, and send her off to college before she wrecks the town.

The outside world intrudes into Thalia in various ways. It pulls Duane and Jacy away. Television provides...

(This entire section contains 778 words.)

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too much competition for the picture show, and it closes. The closing of the movie theater is yet another disappointment for Sonny, following his loss of Sam the Lion, Jacy, Duane, and Ruth Popper. His final loss comes when Billy, blindly sweeping the street, is hit by a truck and killed. Later that day, Sonny tries to leave Thalia. He goes to the city limits and looks at the empty countryside: “He himself felt too empty. As empty as he felt and as empty as the country looked it was too risky going out into it.” He looks back at Thalia: “From the road the town looked raw, scraped by the wind, as empty as the country. It didn’t look like the town it had been when he was in high school, in the days of Sam the Lion.” Sonny has matured, but not enough either to leave Thalia or to make a new, viable life in it. He returns to Ruth Popper; she takes him back, knowing he will not stay.


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The Last Picture Show is a frank, vivid, and at times broadly satiric portrayal of rural Texas in transition. At the time of the action, both Sonny Crawford and his friend Duane Moore are prematurely emancipated high school seniors, living together in a rooming house and supporting themselves through part-time jobs, though each boy has one living parent. Most of their free time, such as it is, is spent in one or another of the establishments owned by an elderly patriarch known as Sam the Lion— the pool hall, movie house (“picture show”), or café. On weekends, the boys inconveniently share Sonny’s old pickup truck for their dates, Duane with the rich, alluring Jacy Farrow and Sonny with the plainer, foul-tempered Charlene Duggs. As the girls’ names would imply, McMurtry leaves little doubt that life in a town such as Thalia is never far removed from the barnyard, an impression underscored by the name and occupation of Sonny’s initial employer, a bottled-gas dealer named Frank Fartley. The true action of the novel begins early when Sonny, somewhat to his own surprise, decides that he really does not like Charlene and impulsively breaks up with her on the first anniversary of their steady dating. Thereafter, the novel traces the steep contours of Sonny’s “sentimental education” against the temporal backdrop of irreversible changes occurring in the town of Thalia.

Once he has broken up with Charlene, Sonny is known to be “available”—not only to other women but also to experience in general. Soon thereafter, he falls into an unlikely liaison with Ruth Popper, the shy, neglected wife of the high school football coach. Ruth is both able and willing to teach Sonny about more than sex and love, but the difference in their ages continues to loom between them. Duane, meanwhile, remains attached to Jacy Farrow, little suspecting that Jacy plans to drop him as soon as she has made the right connections, with a moneyed, high-living, nude-bathing young crowd in nearby Wichita Falls. It is Jacy’s mobility—and volatility—that will keep both Sonny and Duane off-balance, precipitating the novel’s principal crises.

Life in Thalia, meanwhile, keeps changing in response to progress elsewhere. Curmudgeonly, avuncular Sam the Lion dies while Sonny and Duane are in Mexico on an impulsive weekend trip; although Sam has left a detailed will, leaving the pool hall to Sonny and his other properties to suitably responsible parties, it is clear that little of Thalia will in fact survive him; the closing of the movie house for want of customers, occurring near the end of the novel, serves also as the source of its title, announcing the theme of irrevocable change as clearly as Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again (1940). Sonny’s retarded friend Billy, an orphan adopted by Sam who becomes Sonny’s eventual charge, will be run down and killed by a truck not long after the closing of the “picture show” that he considered his home, further underscoring the author’s stated point.

As noted above, however, it is the alluring, fickle Jacy Farrow whose impulsive yet oddly premeditated behavior will force the action toward its unresolved conclusions. The only child of a restless, sensual mother and a father grown rich through a rare (for Thalia) combination of hard work and good luck, Jacy perceives the outward effect of her charms before she perceives her own inner needs. She initially took up with Duane, it appears, because he played football and because he was there; it does not take her long, however, to figure out that Duane will probably always be as poor as he is now. Always a manipulative opportunist with her parents, Jacy soon turns those same skills on her many male admirers; once she has decided to “dump” Duane, she tricks him into seducing her so that she can use the acquired experience to her profit in Wichita Falls, having first gained entrance to the social life there through a boy to whom she consistently denies her favors. When her carefully planned scheme falls through, Jacy then turns her attentions upon Sonny Crawford, despite her awareness of Sonny’s affair with Ruth Popper and of Duane’s departure from Thalia not long after her initial rejection of him. Duane, returning to town with news that Sonny has been seeing Jacy, provokes his former friend into a fight that leaves Sonny blind in one eye. Jacy, quick as ever to perceive a possible advantage, soon hatches yet another scheme, that of eloping with Sonny in full confidence that her parents will pursue the couple and have the marriage annulled. Duane, it seems, enlisted in the army during Sonny’s hospitalization, and Jacy sees little but boredom ahead during the rest of the summer until she starts college.

Just as Jacy had foreseen and hoped, the Farrows intercept the newly married couple with some help from the Oklahoma state police. Lois Farrow, alone with Sonny in Jacy’s car, suggests a brief stopover during which she encourages Sonny to make love to her, advising him that he would have been far better off to stay with Ruth Popper but expressing doubts that Ruth would ever take him back. In the novel’s final scene, occurring just after Billy’s death, Ruth Popper does in fact take Sonny back despite her own strong misgivings and her certainty that history can only repeat itself.